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Sunday, June 27, 2021

Don't Try This at Home: Sharpie Underdrawing

"Building the Medicine Wheel"
16x20 Oil
(Learn about medicine wheels here)

I'll try anything once.

A long time ago, I started a 16x20 panel for a plein air event.  I got as far as blocking in color—ending up with something that looked a bit like a tie-dyed t-shirt—and then the light changed.  I never did finish the painting.  It ended up in the studio, buried under a stack of fresh panels.

The other week, I came across it again.  The vivid color struck me as something that would make a great underpainting for a particular scene I had in mind.  I wanted to make a painting of our side yard, where Trina was building a medicine wheel.  Because the sun at this time of year in New Mexico can be quite intense, I planned to paint it from my porch, which fell into shade around noon.  I wanted to be comfortable.  But noontime sun, of course, tends to bleach out color.  However, I figured that the brilliant color underlying the bleached-out noontime color would give “sparkle.”

And that did work.  But it took some unexpected effort.

When I first set the panel up on the easel, I immediately found the field of hallucinogenic color daunting.  How could I get any kind of underdrawing to stand out against it?  The scene was a complicated one and included some architecture.  I wanted the drawing to be accurate.

In my studio is an old coffee cup stuffed with Sharpie markers of different sizes and colors.  A black Sharpie would be perfect!  I pulled out the biggest and boldest of the black markers and drew in a fine composition.

I next spent a couple of hours blocking in the painting.  The bleached-out colors looked really good against the dropped-acid rainbow.

The next morning, I looked at the painting in horror.  Every inch of line I had made with the Sharpie showed through.  It was as if the paint I'd applied had gone completely transparent.

Preliminary Color
You can see the Sharpie lines!

Close-up showing the Sharpie lines

My palette does include some transparent colors—Sap Green, Ultramarine Blue—and a few semi-transparent ones, such as Hansa Yellow.  But I'd mixed in a considerable amount of opaque white (Titanium-Zinc White) and opaque Yellow Ochre.  (It's hard to get bleached-out color without these.) Was the Sharpie bleeding through?  Or was the paint just more transparent than I had thought?

A quick Internet search showed that some painters had had the same experience.  A few, however, had no problems.

Over the next several days, I stood on my shaded porch and brushed color over the lines.  First, thinly, as I usually do, but only to discover next morning that the Sharpie still showed through.  I gradually put on thicker and thicker paint.  Finally, I gave up on the brush and picked up a knife, applying gobs of paint.  After five or six afternoons, I finally managed to cover all the black lines.  (Or at least the most annoying ones.)

I'm very happy with the painting.  Some of the Sharpie shows through here and there, but it adds to the painting rather than detracting from it.  Fortunately, the painting is a private one, not to be sold and only for our home.  But I won't use a Sharpie again.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

My Art History: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1560
(or a copy by a student based on Bruegel's painting)
73.5 x 112 cm, oil on canvas
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium

After majoring in English Literature as an undergrad, I went on to graduate school, where I focused on modern British poetry and W.H.Auden in particular.  His work enchanted me, partly because the landscape plays such an extensive role in his poems.  One poem in particular sticks with me even now, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”  In it, he writes about one of my favorite paintings, Bruegel's “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”:

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Although the plowman dominates the painting, there's a lot going on it, and you really have to look to notice Icarus at all.  He's just about to go under in a forward dive:

As with Hieronymus Bosch' painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the landscape here is merely a setting for a story.  But it's a magical landscape, a landscape where myth edges up to the quotidian.  In the moment depicted by Bruegel, the plowman plows, the sailing ship sails, the shepherd herds, but Icarus plummets out of a long-told tale, drops into the ocean.  

As I walk through the landscape while seeking a painting spot, I keep my senses alert for a moment like that.  I don't want to miss Icarus.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

What's the Best Lighting for your Canvas?

Made in the Shade

Recently, I posted the above photo to social media.  It shows me painting in the shade of my studio porch.  One follower commented that she had a hard time with painting in shade:  “I try that, then I have to put color on my knife and take it into the sun to judge accuracy.”  If you're painting in deep shade, such as a porch with a large overhang or under a large tree, you'll definitely have a hard time seeing the color you're mixing.  

Here's why.  When you peer out of the shadows to see your brightly-lit subject, the light bombards your retina, causing certain chemical changes that result in vision.  But when you then look at your palette in deep shade, your retina needs to refresh its biochemical configuration so it can see properly again.  This reconfiguration takes awhile.  We tend to glance at our subject to read a quick color note and then immediately look down at our palette to mix that note before we forget it.  Your eyes can't adjust quickly enough for you to mix color accurately this way.

“Dark adaptation,” as it is called, is a slow process.  It takes the eyes 20 to 30 minutes to adjust from sunlight to complete darkness.  Here's a great article from Scientific American on why.

I avoid painting under such conditions.  But sometimes, given the heat of the day and if deep shade is my only option, I'm forced to.  In this case, I position myself so I am at the edge of the shade.  I also rotate my canvas about 45° toward the light.  This puts enough light on both canvas and palette so I can see well enough to mix color.  You can see in the photo that I've positioned myself this way.

I know some painters who paint with sunlight falling directly on their canvas and palette.  They claim that you can't see color if you don't have light.  Well, this is true, but for me, painting like that results in the occasional optical migraine and always in eye strain.

Other painters always paint in shade, using an umbrella to shield canvas and palette.  This is a better approach, as it avoids deep shade and its problems.  But I find umbrellas to be an encumbrance, especially if I'm hiking in some distance or if there is even the slightest breeze.  My preference is to simply position myself with respect to the sun so that my canvas is in shadow.  My particular set-up, however, doesn't allow for my palette to be in shade, too.  So, I mix my colors in the sun and then apply them in the shade.  I don't recommend this for beginners, as it requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics.  But with experience, you can develop this skill.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

My Art History: Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch, 1510-1515
220 x 389 cm, oil on oak panel
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

On my journey as an artist, I've come across many painters, both past and present, whose work I like.  Some, like Claude Monet, are household names; others, like Gustave Caillebotte, don't enjoy the honor of having their work on posters in the home d├ęcor center at Target.  Still, whether a bright star or a lesser light, each of these painters has influenced me in some way.  I would like to share them with you in a series of blog posts that I'm calling “My Art History.”  (But I'll still be posting tips, tricks and techniques, so don't despair!)

Let's start with the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

I don't know when I first came across his work, but I do know that his nightmarish landscapes with weird creatures fascinated me from an early age.  At the time, I was probably reading a lot of fantasy, and Bosch was a timely discovery.  Because he left no letters or diaries, we know very little about him, but we do know he was a popular painter in his day and received commissions from abroad.  But without any commentary from him, we know very little about what his paintings actually mean.  Some seem to be religious allegories; others, moral tales; and still others, a hodge-podge of who knows what from his imagination or from exposure to ergot fungus.

You've probably seen his most famous work, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” (Image at top of post.)  Even so, I recommend you download the 175- megabyte, high resolution image from so you can really get into the detail.  Composed of three sections of oil on oak panel, the left panel depicts the Garden of Eden; the right panel, the Last Judgment; and the center, occupying the between-times of Eden and the Last Judgment, the Garden of Earthly Delights itself.  

As I look through the painting, I find an abundance of puzzles.  What, for example, is the meaning of this?

Or this?

Or even this?

There's much disagreement over meaning and intent.  But for me as a painter, the painting signifies the imaginative riches possible in an otherwise realistic landscape.  As I walk through the world, looking for subject matter, I sometimes think of Bosch's work, and I look for the unusual.

Here's a 50-minute video explaining the painting (can't see the video below?